It may only be mid-July but Busch Gardens Williamsburg has already begun promoting Howl-O-Scream’s seventeenth season across its social media channels. Anyone who has made an annual habit out of following the event will likely recognize it to be an uncharacteristically early start to Howl-O-Scream promotion. In the past the park has often waited until mid-August or later to announce details of the park’s yearly Halloween event.
Why the early start this year? Well, if I’m reading the first bits of information correctly, I theorize it could be the result of a change in direction for the event. Plus, the rumors that have seeped out of the park thus far has me very intrigued. No, really, I’m seriously excited about Howl-O-Scream this year. That hasn’t happened in a long time.
Enough stalling, lets jump right into what we “know” right now. It may seem like a pile of bad news at first, but keep reading—I promise there’s great news to be unearthed the deeper into the post you dig…
Two Houses Cut from Last Year’s Line-Up
Roughly a month ago Busch Gardens Williamsburg removed the images and pages for both Thirteen: Your Numbers Up and Root of All Evil from their Howl-O-Scream website. Additionally, a new banner announcing “New Haunts for 2015” was placed alongside the event’s four returning houses, Bitten, Catacombs, Cut Throat Cove, and Deadline. I’ll be the first to admit that I did not see the removal of Root coming and, though I thought Thirteen was near the top of the list of houses to replace, I didn’t expect it to go before Catacombs or Bitten- two houses that debuted all the way back in 2009.
Fright Feast Vanishes
In addition to Thirteen and Root being removed from the park’s Howl-O-Scream website, all mentions and pictures of last year’s Fright Feast dinner show have also been removed. I’ve always been a fan of Fright Feast’s sister dinner show, Blood Banquet, but due to negative changes to Blood Banquet and a huge overhaul to Fright Feast, I’d actually give the edge to Fright Feast last year. While I am a bit sad to see it go, from a financial standpoint the show did incredibly poorly in its first year (when the show was known to be a complete disaster) and unfortunately, though the park did manage to turn the show into something fairly excellent in 2014, it doesn’t sound like the guest response was enough to save it from the chopping block.
Last Year’s Shows & Terror-tories Return
Because of the intense advertisement of the official Howl-O-Scream website currently happening through the park’s social media pages, I’m fairly confident that what we see on the site right now is what is likely what is ultimately planned for this year’s event. Assuming that is the case, then all three of last year’s shows, Fiends, Monster Stomp on Ripper Row, and Night Beats, should be returning for 2015. Likewise, there doesn’t appear to be any change on the Terror-tory side either. Currently all five of the park’s Terror-tories, Demon Street, Ports of Skull, Ripper Row, Vampire Point, and Wendigo Woods, are slated to return for this year’s event.
While I’m sure there will be some disappointment about the lack of movement on these two fronts, to be honest, I’m ecstatic. Why? Because it’s a sure sign that something has changed. That leads me into one of the most important things about this year’s event…
First Howl-O-Scream in the Post-Scott Era
Earlier this season Scott Gasparich, easily the most controversial executive in the park’s history, left his position as Vice President of Entertainment. Since he took the job back in late 2008, Howl-O-Scream—as a haunt event—has experienced what many would consider a nosedive in quality. For Howl-O-Scream 2009 the park replaced every single last one of the previous year’s houses. While this sounds like an impressive feat, the sad reality is that the park simply ripped apart fantastic, one-year-old mazes such as Masquerage and Wicked Woods: Ripper Row along with two-year-old guest favorites such as Grimm Hollows: Deadtime Stories and Tormented Tales and used the pile of set pieces that remained to build an entirely new lineup of disappointing patchwork houses: Revenge of Pompeii, Bitten, Catacombs, Cavern of Darkness, Cursed, Hunted, and Harvest Hollow. Somehow, since the new leadership decided to completely reinvent the wheel back in 2009, we are still dealing with two of those houses (Bitten and Catacombs), and a good chunk of another (Cursed—which can still be seen under the clown and pirate overlays the house has received in the time since).
Though we aren’t entirely sure who has taken up the reigns for this year’s event within the entertainment department (the department is still lacking a VP), after seven years, someone else is finally getting a chance to head up the event. Change isn’t necessarily good, but it is typically far more interesting than stagnation.
A New House & Location Has Leaked
The other day one of our forum members, mdb07, pointed out a permit for “an elevated walkway in a wooded portion of the park behind the former Drachen Fire site” entitled “Busch Gardens Woods Maze.” The full permit can be found below:
Judging by the information in the permit above, there will be a second house located in Festhaus Park this year to accompany Bitten for the first time since 2010. Not only that, but the park is putting the effort and money into actually building a permanent structure for a Howl-O-Scream house—specifically elevated wooden walkways—for use not only this year, but theoretically for years to come. We have not seen an infrastructure upgrade like this made to Howl-O-Scream in an unimaginably long time.
I, for one, love houses in densely forested areas. The amusement park haunt industry has so few because they are difficult to pull off, but if Busch Gardens Williamsburg can make this work, I anticipate really enjoying it. Again, as I said earlier in this post, I am really, truly excited.
Times Are a-Changin’
So where does all of this get us? Before we look forward, we need to look back a bit. Lets start with 2011.
For 2011 Busch Gardens Williamsburg gave us three new houses, brought back scarezones focused on, well, scaring people, and debuted two new shows. This seemed like a nice return to what Howl-O-Scream fans were used to from the park. Unfortunately, everything started to go sideways in 2012.
2012 brought a single new house which is something fans could live with after getting three the year before. The problem though is that all of the park’s mazes—including the new Root of All Evil—felt weak and wildly understaffed. This is when the haunt-side of Howl-O-Scream really began to feel forgotten. While the houses were hurting, the rest of the event was expanding at an astounding rate. Howl-O-Scream 2012 brought with it an entirely new line-up of three stage shows—even replacing the two brand new shows from the previous year. Shows are great, but did we need three new ones in one year?
In 2013 we saw a single “new” house—if it could be called that. In reality it was essentially a reversed Fear Fair with pirates instead of clowns. It was a solid house, but it certainly wasn’t going to blow anyone’s minds or win any awards. Despite not being willing to fund even one entirely new house, the park found the money to debut two new dinner shows, four new themed areas with a focus on environmental storytelling, two new bars, a new restaurant, two themed shops, and the largest photo op the park’s guests have ever witnessed.
Going into Howl-O-Scream 2014 everyone thought the park would have to step up their game and start replacing their quickly aging maze collection—especially the likes of Bitten and Catacombs which both debuted in 2009. Incredibly, the park went the complete opposite direction. Last year we didn’t get a single new house. Where did the money go? It went into another one of those themed environments (Wendigo Woods), another massive show (Monster Stomp on Ripper Row), and what was essentially an all new dinner show (Fright Feast version 2). On top of those three huge money-sucks, the park gave us another freakin’ themed shop as well.
Looking back at the last three years especially, it’s pretty easy to see that Howl-O-Scream’s money was shifted aggressively away from the haunt aspect of the event and towards the in-park entertainment portion. From 2011 through 2014 we received nine new shows and five new houses. Seeing that park Halloween events typically only feature a couple shows an they’re always considered a distant second or third to the houses, those numbers are downright absurd.
This year the first signs are all pointing to a complete reversal in the way the event has been run the last few years. Right now it looks like there won’t be a single new show or Terror-tory, the park has actually cut a dinner show, and all of the movement seems to be focused exclusively on the house side of the event. We know two houses have been removed (Thirteen and Root) and we know Root is being “replaced” by a maze in the woods behind Festhaus Park. Even if Thirteen isn’t replaced and the event falls back down to five houses, I’ll be a happy camper as long as we see the actors that would have worked the sixth house redistributed throughout the other five to fill staffing gaps elsewhere.
Assuming that I’m reading these signs correctly and the park is, in fact, refocusing their time, energy, and funds on the haunt-side of their Halloween event, I’m thrilled. We’ve seen the park pull off impressive mazes entirely in-house in the past—most notably the second version of Root of All Evil. If the team of people who brought us Root of All Evil v2, Cut Throat Cove, and Wendigo Woods, is actually receiving the bulk of the event’s money this year, I really am excited to see what they have in store for us come September 25th.
You have my attention Busch Gardens. Make me proud.
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Stay tuned for more as its unearthed…